Monday, December 22, 2014

Stories on the Sand

Every year our congregation hosts a Christmas Eve Beach Service.  Last year about 1500 people showed up for it, stretched down the beach almost as far as the eye could see.  It us a real Island tradition here on Sanibel.

The service is rather simple.  A scripture reading, a soloist singing "O Holy Night," carol singing, candle lighting and a telling of the Nativity Story.  The story telling falls to me--and I try to make it accessible for young and old alike.,  Some years I even invite the congregation to add appropriate sound effects.  I don't know what the sea birds think about the mooing and bleating, but so it goes!

Just off shore there are usually a few boats anchored in the shallows, crew members singing as well.  Our bulletin/song sheet, includes admonitions to cart out any garbage and to be careful of the fragile sea grasses.  A very generous couple in the congregation underwrites our expenses, include parking control, so that the entire evening's offering can go to support two local social service agencies.

The gospels would suggest that Jesus often told stories by the shore.  And some of his crowds were estimated to be much, much larger than our crowd--in a day long before amplifiers and microphones!  I have often assumed that folks in front repeated the stories to those behind who could not hear.  Perhaps that is how the oral traditions about Jesus that undergird the scriptures got started.

Later in the evening, I'll be inside, in the confines of our beautiful sanctuary, where once again (though in a  formal way) we will retell the story and sing the songs and light candles.  But in or out, the story is so simple that it transcends time and place.

As you hear it again, don't forget to pass it on.  Don't forget to retell it someone else.  Share it with a child, or a friend, or a stranger who longs to know God cares.  For that above all else is what the story means:  God cares enough to be with us, among us, in us.

Have a blessed Christmas!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

S-E-X and other Christmas Matters

A number of years ago, on the outskirts of Auburn, Maine, there stood a billboard that had splashed across it in bright red letters S-E-X.  Then, beneath the word sex, in small black letters, it said, "Now that we have your attention, we'd like to share the following information with you."  The billboard then went on to advertise a product totally unrelated to sex.

I used to wonder as I drove past that sign if it really was an effective form of advertising.  Sure, it was an attention-getter, and one doesn't easily forget the billboard itself, but for the life of me I can't remember what was being advertised.  The method, the medium, was so controversial that the message itself has been lost!  Thirty-five years later I remember the billboard, but not the product being promoted!

I think that is often what happens when we consider the nativity story.  Mary is visited by an angel who tells her that she is going to give birth to the Messiah.  When Mary questions how this can happen, after all she is a virgin, the angel tells her:  Nothing is impossible with God.

The important fact of the announcement is who is going to be born--not how that is going to happen!  But we get so hung up on debating what the story says or doesn't say about the virgin birth, that we often overlook its central affirmation:  the one to be born is the Saviour.  Like that billboard in Maine, too often we focus on the medium, rather than the message.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Making Peace at the Airport

This time of year many of my parishioners go back up north for the holidays.  The hassles of holiday travel are very much a part of their routines--including the risks of checking bags at the airport.

I'm reminded of the story about the holiday traveler who plopped his case down at the ticket counter, and noticed a bit of mistletoe above the scales.  "Why is that there?" he asked the ticket agent.  The agent smirked.  "So you can kiss your luggage goodbye!"

No wonder folks at airports are rarely at their best!  I've heard angry customers rip ticket agents to shreds.  I've seen people bump and push their way through lines like they were the only person in the world who needed to get somewhere. 

According to Jason Barger, a consultant a frequent flyer, the general atmosphere at airports makes them perfect places to hone one's skills as a peacemaker.  A few years back he decided to spend seven consecutive days and nights in the air travel system to see how people respond to the stress and anxiety of flying.  He kept a journal, noting all that he observed.  "I started thinking, maybe the airport . . . is where we could start thinking about beginning a more civil and graceful society."  (New York Times, 12-2-08, B4)  Instead of jumping up when the captain turns off the no seat belt signs and cramming the aisle with everybody else at the end of the flight, we could just stay seated, and let the frenzy go by.  Instead of jostling for the best position at the baggage carousel, we could just stand back and wait calmly for the bags.  As we live with a greater measure of peace and serenity, he reasons, it will influence others.

Barger's premise is really quite simple.  If we want to have peace in our lives, "we just need to smart small . . . [We can] . . . change the world, by the way be live at the airport."  (Ibid)

Just a thought in this busy season of the year!

Happy travels!

Monday, December 1, 2014

A Good Dose of Advent

Gray Thursday.  Black Friday.  Small Business Saturday.  Cyber Monday.  The trifecta of shopping--plus one for good measure!  Note that Sunday doesn't make the cut--thank God!  But of course it didn't--I mean what's left?  Convenience Store Sunday?  Seven-Eleven Sunday (Oh thank Heaven! )  I'm all for commerce.  I enjoy a good Christmas gift as much as the next guy or gal.  But the hype has just gotten to be a bit too much!

So what are we to do about it?  The complaints that Christmas has gotten too commercialized are nothing new.  I'm sixty-one, and I don't remember a time when somebody didn't complain about shopping and such pushing aside the Christ child.  And as for Advent.  Well there's a lost cause for you if ever there was one!  Most folks probably think it's a new prescription medication.  Take two Advents and call me in the morning.  But beware, it can cause internal bleeding, drowsiness and in rare cases a prolonged sense of yearning. 

OK--now that I've gotten that out of my system, maybe I can focus on a serious word or two about this time of year, this holy season called Advent.  Every preacher worth his or her salt speaks of patience and watching and waiting in these weeks leading up to Christmas.  Yet this is so very counter-cultural!  We are not a patient people.  Just sit two seconds to long after the light turns green and you'll understand what I mean!  We want things now.  And as for watching and waiting.  Please!  We see so much in this visual age that we miss most everything in sight!

But such are the bywords of the season.  Watch.  Wait.  Be patient.  I hope (another good Advent word) that I can do just that.  Not because I am overly eager for presents and the other stuff of Christmas, but because I yearn for peace and joy and love.  Maybe a good dose of Advent is just what I need. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Thoughts at Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving.  For most Americans it conjures up images of abundance.  Tables overflowing with turkey and mashed potatoes and gravy and cranberry sauce and at least two kinds of pie.  No wonder our ancestors called it "the groaning board"!  Yet for many Americans Thanksgiving is just one more day of hunger. 

A recently released study based on a federal survey says  49 million Americans are "food insecure."  In some 324 counties, one in five residents.  That means going hungry, eating less than is needed, or eating nutritionally inadequate meals due to financial constraints.  In other words, 49 million Americans are undernourished, malnourished, or simply hungry.  (USA Today, April 20, 2014, 5B)

We hear about hunger in America every year at this time.  And for a few brief days--sometimes weeks--we do fairly well at applying band aids to the problem.  We hold Thanksgiving dinners for the poor.  We take up food collections for soup kitchens and food pantries.  We pack up Thanksgiving baskets for needy families.  And that is all well and good.  Very good.  But let's not fool ourselves.  It doesn't solve the problem.  These are all wonderful acts of charity--but they are not really acts of justice.  Justice works to resolve the underlying inequities.  And while a basket of goodies or a hot meal in the church basement may fill a belly for a day, it doesn't begin to resolve the ongoing issue of hunger in America.

Let's be honest.  For those of us who think in theological terms, it is a societal sin.  I don't like to throw around such words needlessly, but the fact that there are children (and adults) who don't have enough to eat, or the right things to eat, or anything to eat at all, is unconscionable.  And the answer doesn't lie in opening more food pantries or soup kitchens.  The answer lies in working towards full employment.  The answer lies in addressing the minimum wage issue.  The answer lies in making it easier for supermarkets and other purveyors of good food to open stores in the inner cities. 

This Thanksgiving, as you and I sit at our tables laden with good food, let us recommit ourselves to working towards the goal of food security for all Americans. 

Monday, October 27, 2014

So Who's in YOUR Prayers?

I saw a brief blurb in the most recent Christian Century which reported that almost half of all Americans say they pray every day.  Of that number 82 percent said they pray for friends and family.  Only 40 percent pray for their enemies and a scant 12 percent pray for governmental leaders.  (October 29, 2014, 8)  Which just goes to show you that those who think politicians haven't got a prayer may be right!

Seriously, though, I am struck by the fact that so few of us pray for our president, our governors, our senators and representatives.  Here at Sanibel Congregational United Church of Christ our staff gathers for prayer every morning, and one of the prayers we offer up every day reads:  "We pray for those who make decisions that impact all our lives, especially our President, Barack, and our Governor, Rick."   For the cynically minded, it means we cover both enemies and those in authority in one prayer--for Barack Obama and Rick Scott are politically polar opposites!  One or the other is probably your political nemesis!  The Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer, and prayer books for many other denominations as well, includes prayers for governmental leaders.  As the piece in Christian Century notes, it is what the New Testament says we are supposed to do.  "I urge that supplications, prayers,intercessions and thanksgivings be made for everyone," writes the author of First Timothy, "for kings and all who are in high places . . . ."  (2:1-2a)

Next week we will be going to the polls to elect some of our leaders.  Here in Florida we will decide the outcome of an exceptionally virulent campaign for governor.  It is a tight, tight race.  Too close to call.  And around the nation there are other such contests as well.  Places where the populace is evenly divided when it comes to their choice of candidates. And so it is in this democracy of ours.  Often we find ourselves disagreeing over leaders and policies and programs.  Good and faithful people can be found on most any side and most every side!  As that old bumper sticker says, "God is not a Republican . . . or a Democrat!"  But as Christians, Jews and other people of faith, we should all agree on this:  our leaders need our prayers.

So who's in YOUR prayers?

Monday, October 20, 2014

Zombies . . . and Ebola

It was a strange juxtaposition.  Zombies and ebola.  Let me explain.

The neighboring city of Fort Myers held it's annual ZombieCon this past weekend.  A celebration of all-things zombie.  Folks dress up in elaborate zombie-themed costumes.  There are contests and music and special foods.  All the things you'd expect at any street festival.  All focused on zombies--the living dead.

Needless to say, such an event provides many photographic opportunities for television.  And the local stations did themselves proud, covering the event in great detail.  TV screens were filled with graphic images of decaying flesh masks and make-up gone wild.  Some of it was pretty silly.  A lot of it rather scary.  And most of it just plain gross.

I was shocked, however, not so much by the event or the make-up as I was by the way the stories about the ZombieCon were butted right up next to stories about the ebola crisis.  It struck me as rather tasteless.  I'm all for good fun.  And dress up is indeed a game the whole family can play!  But our national fascination with the zombies, animated dead bodies who dine on the flesh of the living, is bizarre at best.  Then again, maybe it's not.  Maybe it really is rather understandable.

One thing about dressing up like a zombie:  when you're done playing make-believe, you can wipe off the makeup, take off the raggedy costume, and resume your everyday life.  You can't do that with diseases like ebola or AIDS or cancer.  You can control being a zombie.  And we all know zombies aren't real.  But ebola isn't fake.  HIV/AIDS is very real.  Cancer impacts most every family. And ISIS and drought and tornadoes and forest fires that last for months . . . there are some things we can't seem to control.  Things that really frighten us.  Maybe that's why it's such a relief to be a  zombie--if only for a weekend.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Graying of the Church

Technically we are not part of the so-called "gray belt"--a cluster of eight counties in central and western Florida that is populated by a disproportionate number of senior citizens.  Lee County has plenty of older folks, but not enough to qualify for that designation.  Sanibel, however, this lovely island where I live, could be called the gray button.  Our average age here in our fair city is sixty-one.  ( Counter-intuitively, we are the wave of the future, for our nation is aging with each passing year.

We have never tried to determine the average age of our five hundred or so parishioners here.  But I suspect it's not far off the city average.  It may even be a bit older.  We have some younger members, and even a few families with young children.  We have a good educational program for kids--bopth midweek (which attracts quitre a few "non-church" kids) and Sunday mornings.  We also run our own weekday preschool.  But by-and-large our members are retirees, often snowbirds.  Here for the winter, but gone three to six months of the year.

We do a fair amount of hand-wringing around here about church growth.  We need younger members, we need to bring in the young families!  I hear that a lot.  But what if they aren't there to be brought in?  Or, what if what we have to offer just doesn't meet their needs? 

I love church.  I love Sunday worship.  I love the various accoutrements that surround the institution called church.  I even love a good stewardship campaign!  But I just turned sixty-one.  I'm not even bringing down the average age anymore!  Only one out of my three children is a regular church goer.  I share the fate of most of my parishioners.

What if church as we know it is on the verge of extinction, what then?  How will we, in this liminal time, best serve those in the gray belts and buttons, while still moving into the future?  I wish I had the answer--I'd hire out as a highly paid consultant!  I'm sure it is not simply a matter of guitars and drums in worship, and Starbucks in the social hall.  But what is it?  How do we institutionally carry out our mission to love God and neighbor in this rapidly changing world? 

Monday, October 6, 2014

Do We Really Need Clergy Appreciation Month?

October is Clergy Appreciation Month.  I'm not sure why we pastors need a special month dedicated to folks expresing their appreciation.  I find they tend to do that all year long--it is one of the things that truly sustains me in my work.  Folks send lovely notes and e-mails.  Sometimes they leave a book or an article that they think I'll appreciate in my mailbox.  And they often take time to stop me at coffee hour to say thank you for this or that.  So I don't really think we need a designated month.  But be that as it may, perhaps it does give me a chance to thank some of the clergy who have been important in my life.

I start, of course, with my Dad.  Howard Danner.  He was a stubborn son-of-a-gun.  He had strong opinions, and he was more than happy to share them with you.  From the pulpit, in one-on-one conversations, in written correspondence.  I suspect it wasn't always easy being one of his parishioners. Certainly it wasn't always easy being his son--especially since my views often diverged from his!  But parishioners and offspring alike also knew that they could count on Dad when they needed him to be there.  He was a real johnny-on-the-spot when it came to pastoral care!  I learned much, sitting under his preaching and pastoring for eighteen years.  But the two most important lessons were this.  Don't be afraid to speak the truth as you understand it.  And, love.  Love the people you care for as a pastor.  Really love them.

When I was a teenager I was part of a youth group led by another pastor in town.  A fellow named Don Rankin.  Don was my Dad's successor--and in many ways they were polar opposites.  But Don had a real heart for young people.  His youth group meetings were always challenging.  We deal with a wide array of issues:  human sexuality, racism, poverty.  And when you needed a wise bit of counsel, Don was always willing to make time to sit and talk things through.  From Don I learned that pastors should be there for the young people as well as the adults. 

Actually, my list of clergy I appreciate is very, very long.  I know more pastors than may be healthy for any human being!  But I mention just one more.  Ron Kurtz.  Ron was the regional minister when I was starting out in my first full-time parish in upstate New York.  He was a very wise judicatory official, who understood that even pastors need pastors.  Shortly after starting at my new church in Gloversville, I was separated from my wife of twelve years.  I was petrified!  How could I tell these folks who had just called me as their new pastor!  "Trust them," advised Ron.  "They will be far more accepting than you can imagine."  And he was right.  Ron helped me through the crisis, and even saw to it that I got two or through opportunities for writing and learning that boosted my very fragile sense of self.  From Ron, I learned that being a pastor is, in some ways, a two way street.  Not that a congregation is there to meet your needs as a pastor.  Rather, there are times when they will need to hold you up--like the leaders who held up the arms of Moses.

I'm still not sure we need a special month for expressing our appreciation for the clergy in our lives.  But the truth is, when someone makes a difference in your life you can never say thank you enough!

(Photo:  Howard Danner, circa 1980.  Unfortunately, I am unable to locate pictures of Don Rankin or Ron Kurtz.)

Monday, September 29, 2014

One Grandfather's Perspective on Homework

I am meeting with one of my grandchildren once a week to do some tutoring this year.  History and literature in particular.  I'm happy to do it--it's nice to have some one-on-one time.  But it has caused me to be more aware of homework than I have had to be for almost twenty years!

The reality is, the kid has a lot of it.  Practically a ton of it.  Just heft the back pack stuffed with text books and folders if you don't believe me!  And I, for one, can't help but wonder if it's too much.  The general guideline offered by the NEA and other education groups is ten minutes times the student's grade level.  So a first grader would only have ten minutes of homework a night; a high school senior, two hours. 

The same report indicated that children shouldn't learn new information or new methodologies by doing homework, but rather homework should reinforce what is taught in the classroom during the day.

Last week during our tutoring session we worked on explicating Walt Whitman's poem, "O Captain, My Captain."  It is a powerful piece of poetry, historically rooted in the time following the assignation of Abraham Lincoln.  It was a well crafted assignment which allowed for some real integration of historical material and literature.  The assignment emphasized Whitman's use of extended metaphor.  And my grandchild seemed to really understand it.  But it was a bit of a struggle, and I'm not sure there would have been the same level of understanding had I not been sitting there.  That's not to pat myself on the back.  It is to say I'm not sure it met either of the aforementioned criteria.  It was only one of many assignments for the night and weekend.  And it took well over the allotted time.  But most significantly, I think my grandchild did learn something new.

I don't know what the answer is to the problem.  But I have decided that the complaining I sometimes here from young parents is justified.  The issue of too much homework is really an issue.  And finding and making time for play, plain old-fashioned play, is as important to a child's education as learning about extended metaphors, algorithms and cellular reproduction. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

A Fair Expectation

The National Football League is a tax-exempt, not-for-profit organization.  No kidding!  Not the teams themselves, but the league.  As it turns out, so too the PGA and the National Hockey League.  Not-for-profit, like a church or the American Cancer Society or your local food pantry.  The NFL!  Apparently the tax-exempt status grew out of the same conversations that granted it an exemption to various anti-trust laws when the former American Football League merged with it.  Not-for-profit.  It seems so very Orwellian to speak of an organization like the NFL as not-for-profit.

The league itself, according to USA Today, makes about $300 million a year, and the industry (including all the teams) turns over $9 billion a year. The teams are not tax-exempt, just the league.  Still, it is a money-making machine!  Television revenues alone . . . . well, you get the point.

Not-for-profits are established to better the community.  That is their purpose, and that is why they are allowed tax-exempt status.  Now it is true, the NFL does sponsor some charitable work.  And that is good.  But if the NFL really wants to live up to it's tax-exempt status, if it really wants to help better the community, then it has do a much more credible job of handling the domestic violence concerns that are being raised.  Thousands, no millions, of youngsters look up to players.  They are role models for youngsters across the country.  How the NFL deals with this crisis will send a strong message to those young people.  It has the potential to make our national community a better place.  And that is a fair expectation to have of a nationally recognized not-for profit organization.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Wheels Down in America--Reflections on Trinidad

Perhaps the greatest value in overseas travel is found in the way it forces you to consider the strengths and weaknesses of your own nation.  You can't help but ask questions of your self like, "What did I miss most about home?' and "What did I most appreciate about the country I visited?"

Our time in Trinidad this past weekend raised just such questions in my own mind.  And like a student taking a final exam in a social studies course, I was confronted with the question, "Compare and contrast Trinidad and the United States of America."

Of course, I recognize that I am not an expert on Trinidadian life and culture!  A few days doesn't turn one into an expert!  And I also recognize that America is a vast and varied nation--so I speak here in generalities.

First, diversity.  Trinidad seems to have found a way to truly appreciate religious, cultural and racial differences.  Hindus, Christians, Muslims.  Vegans and meat-eaters.  Folks of Indian descent, folks of African descent, folks of European descent, all seemed to live and work together.  Granted there were pockets of folks here and there grouped by race or ethnic background--but by and large, I found Trinidad a much for integrated society than our own.  Even socio-economically--large homes of the well-to-do often stood side-by-side with run down bungalows.

That said, here in the United States we often have a more considered approach to planning and zoning.  While it often seems like a burden to Americans, it also leads, at its best, to a community that it more logical in design. 

Trinidad is also marked by an approach to education that seems to be more equitable than our own often is.  There is an emphasis on technical education that is largely missing from our own school systems.  And post-secondary education is provided for all who academically qualify at no cost.

Health care, too, seems to be more readily available for one and all due to a single payer system.  Granted, health care quality is probably greater here in the United States, indeed it is not uncommon for the worst cases in Trinidad to be flown out to places like Miami.  Still access for all is the governing principle.  How, one wonders, can we move to a place where there is both open access and high quality care? 

As always, on these foreign junkets, I come home grateful to be an American.  Yet I am also reminded that as a nation we have much to learn from other nations.  And we are wise to do just that--for we are increasingly a global society!

One of my favorite hymns, "This Is My Song," was written by Lloyd Stone, and is usually sung to the tune FINLANDIA.  It's first stanza sums up well my thoughts and prayers as I reflect on the trip:

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;
but other hearts, in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.
God bless Trinidad and Tobago.  God bless the United States of America.  God bless our world!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Wheels Down in Trinidad--Post #3

Today we distributed 25 wheelchairs.  We also visited a Hindu Temple, and in an odd sort of way, those to things are connected.  Let me explain.

The Rotary Club here in Trinidad has, as I've mentioned, distributed hundreds of wheelchairs.  As a result they have the process extremely well-organized.  It begins with referrals.  Folks who know of their work recommend potential recipients.  After an application is filled out, the club makes certain the potential recipient meets their criteria, including actual need.  A day is set for distribution, and folks are scheduled to come to the school where the Club issues the chairs.  Everybody has a specific job, ranging from greeting recipients to finalizing paper work. 

The folks issued chairs today ranged from a young man who had been paralyzed at the age of three in a car accident, to an elderly woman who was a double amputee.  There was even a little girl who had outgrown her wheelchair and was turning it in for a larger one.

Seedaws Sadhu returned from service in the Pacific during World War II in one piece--unlike many of his comrades.  A devout Hindu, he decided to build a Temple in gratitude for his safe return.  He started construction on the Temple on what turned out to be land owned by the state, and so it was torn down.  But Sadhu was undeterred.  The sea, he reasoned, belonged to no one--and so he would build the Temple some 90 meters off shore.  Each evening, after a full day of cutting sugar cane, he came down to the waters and worked on his project.  He carried foundation stones to the beach on his bicycle and then waded out to build the site--included, over time, a causeway.  He worked on his project for 18 years every single day.  While incomplete at the time of his death, the Temple stands today as a testimony to the marvel of how one stone stacked on top of another, can, over time, amount to a thing of beauty.

We passed out just twenty-five chairs today, but over time the Club here on Trinidad has kept at the work month after month, year after year--and today thousands of folks in the Caribbean lead fuller lives because of their dedication.  Dedication as admirable as that of a sugar cane cutter who wanted to build a Temple so many years ago. 

(Photo Credit:  Don Thomas)

Friday, September 12, 2014

Wheels Down in Trinidad--Post #2

After a good night's sleep and a morning cup of coffee my traveling companions and I explored downtown Chaguanas, the city where we are staying.  We went to the local market, a place filled with the sights, sounds and smells of all manner of foodstuffs!  We saw produce heaped in colorful piles ranging from avocados to something that intrigued grandson Zak called sticky fruit.  Many of the vendors were bagging up their goods--there seemed to be lots and lots and lots of hot peppers!  A couple of them sat chopping avocados to sell in pieces.  I know--you want some chips for guacamole, don't you?

The butchers were also hacking away at pork and beef and chicken.  You could buy a pig's face (just the face, not the whole head) for soup or whatever.  There were body parts I couldn't identify.  And fish--lots of fish.  We watched as one vendor cleaned and filleted a very large tilapia for a customer right on the spot.  One of our number is a vegetarian, and his commitment to his eating lifestyle was only reinforced by much of what we saw.  And, quite honestly, I had a vegetarian lunch!

Speaking of lunch, we went to one of the mall food courts for lunch--as I was to have a lunch meeting with the General Secretary of the Conference of Caribbean Churches.  Unlike most other regional ecumenical bodies, the Caribbean group includes the Roman Catholic Church.  A very positive sign!  It was an informative and productive meeting, and I left further impressed by the hospitality of Trinidadians!  Zak and the others had lunch and then poked around the stores while we talked.  Zak  was delighted to have Burger King French Fries for his noontime meal!

Our afternoon tour of Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago, included some intriguing facts including two miscellaneous tidbits:  the largest traffic roundabout in the world is in Port of Spain, and so is the KFC selling the most chicken of any franchise!  The things you learn!

Tonight we join our Rotary host at her home, along with about twenty invited guests for a "lime"--not the fruit, a party.  Any time you hang out with friends, it's called a lime.  I haven't discovered the history of the word's use yet, but I like it! 

In case you haven't picked it up--and I don't know how you could have missed it--hospitality is the theme of the trip so far!  We have been blown away by the graciousness, the kindness, the openness of our hosts.  Jesus, of course, was known for his hospitality--and we've certainly seen his face in so many people here.  Who knows, maybe the Last Supper was really a lime!   


Thursday, September 11, 2014

Wheels Down in Trinidad--Post #1

The alarm went off at 4:10 AM.  We'd driven across the Everglades the night before in order to catch our 7:00 AM flight to Port of Spain in Trinidad.  We'd spent the night at a hotel near the airport and managed to be there bright (well, OK, maybe not so bright) and early.

The "we" includes fellow Sanibel-Captiva Rotarian John Grey, Cape Coral Rotarian Don Thomas, and my grandson Zak.  And we are all here to help distribute many of the 110 wheelchairs shipped here as a result of the Wheels for Wheels Fort Lauderdale to Key West bike ride Zak and I took in August 2013.

Trinidad has long been the home of Arawak and Carib Indians--and indeed, though few in number, still is.  It was first "discovered" by Christopher Columbus in 1498 who gave it the name La Isla de la Trinidad.  The island of the Trinity.  The history of this island nation is rather long and complicated, and includes enslavement of the native population, imported slaves from Africa and eventually the importation of Asian Indians as indentured servants.  The Spanish, the French and the English all played a part in the colonization of the island.

Today it is a multi-ethnic republic--with people of Indian and African descent most predominantly represented.  As an independent country, Trinidad, coupled with the nearby island of Tobago, has been in existence for a very brief half century.

We were greeted at the airport by a fellow Rotarian, and treated to a local favorite, doubles--a very spicy combination of chickpeas, served with fried bara bread.  Goopy, hard to eat, and really delicious.  It also makes for a clever decoration down the front of your shirt as I quickly discovered!

Our host, Lisa Francis, president of the Charleyville-Felicity Rotary Club, helped us get settled in to her family hotel, and then, after some lunch, took us to the local shopping mall for a few supplies. 

If nothing else, this is a place of real contrasts.  The mall didn't look very different from shopping centers in Florida.  Complete with TGI Fridays, Subway and other franchises.  On the way to the mall, however, we passed many, many homes that looked like so many other houses on other islands in the Caribbean.  Some quite lovely, but many having seen much, much better days.

As we left the airport I spotted a large pair of signs--decorations for the celebration of the nation's anniversary.  One featured the national seal of Trinidad and Tobago.  The other said, quite simply, "God Bless Our Nation."  A reminder that even as we utter similar sentiments about America, folks around the world, who love their nation as dearly as we love ours, have the same hopes and dreams.  Our prayer is that our visit might be a bit of a blessing for folks here--for certainly already, in a mere six hours or so, they have blessed us with their warmth and hospitality!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Flying on 9-11

I'm flying on 9-11.  Thirteen years ago many of us wondered if we would ever be able to muster the courage to get on a place again.  But we did.  Millions of us did.  Indeed, I flew later that fall to teach a course in Iowa.  Security was tight.  The soldiers and others who protected our airports carried weapons that were unsettling for many.  I remember on that first flight something fell a few rows ahead from one of the overhead bins and a woman screamed.  We applauded when we landed safely.

I didn't intentionally book a flight for 9-11.  I'm going to Trinidad to help distribute wheelchairs to folks in need of them.  9-11 turned out to be the day we needed to leave to get there for the distribution.  Not only am I flying that day, but I'm taking my thirteen year old grandson with me.

I hadn't really thought about it as particularly brave or noble, much less as an act of defiance.  But I suppose in a way it is.  I suppose in its own way its saying terrorism can't stop us from doing good.  Evil may think it has the upper hand, but it doesn't.  We may need to ramp up security.  We may need to take off shoes and worry about how many ounces of shampoo we're carrying and even give up a measure of our own privacy--but we're not going to stop doing the things that can help make this world a better place.  Like raising money for wheelchairs and seeing that they get given to kids with no legs and old folks who are no longer mobile.

So I'm flying on 9-11.  It's not much, really.  But keep me in your prayers, please.  And keep in your prayers those folks who do far riskier things in the name of all that is good.  Doctors and nurses who risk their own health to fight Ebola.  Firefighters who run into burning buildings to rescue those who are trapped.  Those who negotiate between warring parties.  For in the end every act of love, every act of compassion, says no to evil and yes to that which is good and right and beautiful.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Post-Journey Junkmail

I just returned from vacation.  I was away for two-and-a-half weeks.  It was a good trip--saw lots of friends and family, read some good books, got in lots of swimming and sightseeing.  All and all a success.  But every vacation comes with a price--and I don't mean the various expenses like lodging, meals and transportation that come with every trip.  No I mean sorting through the mail that has piled up while I was away.  Literally hundreds of e-mails (though I did keep abreast of them while I was away.  The blessing--or perhaps curse--of a smart phone!) and dozens and dozens of pieces of snail mail.

What struck me as I sorted through the snail mail was how much of it was a real waste!  A waste of paper, a waste of time, a waste of effort!  Very few pieces were personal.  There was a lovely invitation to a birthday dinner-dance in October.  And a very gracious thank you note for a memorial service I had conducted from a parishioner mourning the passing of her husband.  But other than that it mostly fell into two categories.  Bills or solicitations. 

The bills are self-explanatory.  While I've converted a number of paper bills to electronic formats, we do still receive some of them by mail.  Including some very confusing medical bills and explanations of benefits from our insurance company.  (Explanation is a technical term here--in reality nothing ever seems to be very clearly explained in such documents.  Who owes how much for what?)

The solictations often come with preprinted address labels.  Most of them get thrown into the recycling bin.  Some come from organizations we have supported for years, like Planned Parenthood, the American Cancer Society and Amnest5y International.  But others come from organizations we've never supported!  Here's a hint for such organizations.  Just send me your request.  Forget the free labels, the little cutesy pads of paper with my name on the top, the wrapping paper, the greeting cards.  Spend your money on the cause--not on the trinkets and tokens! 

So there you have it.  Post-vacation rant is over.  Thanks for letting me vent!

Friday, August 29, 2014

On Home and Hearts

Sherwood.  That was my mother's maiden name.  Her parents, Sue and Robert Sherwood, are both buried in Park Lawn Cemetery in Bennington, Vermont.  My grandfather, Robert, died in 1961, when I was just seven.  As his grave marker reminds all who see it, he was a veteran of World War I.  He was in the Medical Corps, and a corporal when he got out and finished his studies at Harvard.  My grandmother Sue lived another twenty-seven years and was a major part of my young life.  I had the honor of officiating at her funeral, next to my Dad's, the hardest funeral I've ever done.

I visited their graves this week while on vacation in the Berkshires.  My mother, who was raised in Bennington, moved away in the early fifties, and never lived there again.  To the best of my knowledge, we have no living relatives in Bennington. And while I visited often in my childhood and young adulthood, I never lived there myself.  But I've moved around a lot over my lifetime, and Bennington was a constant.  It was the closest thing I had to a hometown.

As my wife Linda and I placed flowers on my grandparent's graves, I offered a brief prayer of thanks for having had them in my life.  My grandfather's love of literature, my grandmother's concern for the environment--things that remain with me to this day.  But as I reflected on how spread out my family is--Nebraska, Kentucky, Michigan, New York, Massachusetts, Florida--I realized that home is indeed, where the heart is.  And my heart is in many places.  Not divided, but rather enriched by the diversity of people and places that are a part of my life.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Ferguson, Race and Great Aunt Ruth

My grandmother's brother was named Jim.  Jim Huntington.  He was a big man--and he loved to laugh.  He ran a garage--a Texaco station--in Vermont.  And his wife, my Great Aunt Ruth, kept the books.

Uncle Jim and Aunt Ruth had a cottage--a camp, as we New Englanders called such places--on Lake Champlain.  And every year for many summers my family would spend part of August with them there.  And Aunt Ruth did most of the cooking.  There was always lots to eat.  Meat, potatoes, and corn on the cob, the golden produce of late summer.  And baked goods.  Aunt Ruth made the best yeast rolls, marvelous cakes and pies.  It was, as they say, "to die for."

Uncle Jim loved Ruth's cooking, as his round belly proved every time he pulled up to the table.  But he was forever teasing her about it in the way that husbands sometimes tease their wives.  It was gentle, and good natured.  I think it was his way of saying "I love you, Ruthie!"  That's what he called her, "Ruthie."

One day, at the age of ten or so, I decided to join in the fun.  And so I started to heckle Aunt Ruth about the way she'd burned the supper.  She hadn't, of course.  I was just teasing, like Jim did all the time.  But Ruth didn't take it that way. In fact, she burst into tears and ran out into the kitchen.  Someone went to get her, to urge her to come back to dinner while my Dad took me aside and made it very clear that while I may have thought it was all in good fun, Aunt Ruth hadn't.  In fact she was very hurt.  I apologized, and Ruth forgave me my ignorance, and so it we resumed dinner.

I think I've told this story before, here in the pages of this blog.  But it's August--and I'm on vacation--and so it's little wonder I thought of it when I saw a report in today's paper about a poll taken by the Pew Research Center.  It seems that among blacks, 80% feel that the situation in Ferguson, Missouri "raises important racial issues," while 37% of whites think it is "getting more attention than it deserves."  (USA Today, 8-22-14, 3A)

I didn't think I was saying or doing anything wrong when I teased Aunt Ruth.  But Ruth did.  And so we had a problem.  A real problem.  The sort of problem, had it not been properly handled by Uncle Jim and my parents, which could have resulted in a serious family rift.  (Such things happen all the time!)  Whether you think we have a problem in Ferguson or not, whether you think it raises racial issues or not, the fact that so many people do means it does.  Period.  And how it is handled will make all the difference in the family called America. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

A Post about Posts

I recently finished a very disturbing book, The Circle, by David Eggers.  It is a work of science fiction set in the very near future.  And I just can't get it out of my head!

The Circle in the novel's title refers to a fictional corporation modeled after Facebook.  One of the founders of the company even wears hoodies!  The basic question posed by the book is "What happens when every part of our lives is online?"  The Circle is initially presented as a very positive influence on the world.  But as the book goes along one becomes increasingly concerned by the far reaching consequences of its move into every facet of life.

Two issues that surface in the book really gave me pause.  The first had to do with the addictive quality of the virtual world.  How easily we fall into compulsive behaviors when it comes to things like checking e-mail, social media sites and so on.  The second had to do with the ongoing issue of privacy.  How much privacy do we have any more? Total transparency is lifted up as the highest good by the Circle.  Folks are expected to reveal all to the world.

I don't know about you, but I have things I really don't want to share with my best friends and family, much less complete strangers.  And I'm willing for others to have such private thoughts and ideas.  I'm an introvert--I need time to process things that cross my path.  Social media encourages instant responses.  responses that are not always well considered.  I find it all a bit unsettling.

I encourage you to read Eggers book.  You may not like it.  You may not like what it suggests may happen if we continue to follow the virtual path without real consideration of its implications.  But I am sure it will give you much to consider.

I'm not going to abandon Facebook.  I'm not going to stop writing this blog.  And I'm not giving up e-mail.  I'm not a Luddite!  But I am concerned.  I think we all should be concerned.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Sitting in a Pew--Part II

I spent the weekend at my Mom's in southeastern Kentucky.  It's a part of the world where church is serious business.  Everywhere you look there are signs (literally and figuratively) that indicate these are church going folks.  I saw several billboards, for instance, that all proclaimed in huge letters "Talk to God--Sundays 11:00 AM"

Every couple of miles along the highways one sees signs pointing up into the hills (the hollers as they call them there) indicating the presence of one small church or another.  Many of them are Holiness Churches.  Others are independent, non-denominational congregations.  And most of them have Baptist in their name:  Roadside Baptist, First Baptist, Turkey Creek Baptist . . . you get the drift.  And all of them are very evangelical in their theological understandings. 

It's not an easy place to be a mainline congregation.  But they do exist.  United Methodists and Presbyterians and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) for the most part.  Often they are small, struggling congregations.  Doing their best to offer some theological alternatives in a place dominated by biblical literalism.

Mom is part of just such a church.  It's a little Disciples of Christ congregation that considers it a really good Sunday when thirty folks are in attendance.  Their part-time pastor is a seminary student who divides his time between working for the church and working on his degree.  He is a good and imaginative man.  And the congregation knows it.  They consider themselves fortunate to have him.

I've been to Mom's church many times before, and so was warmly greeted by several parishioners when I walked in the door.  I came a bit later than Mom.  She is the regular lector, and had gone to church a bit early to set up her reading.  But I wasn't the only one greeted in such a fashion.  I don't think anybody, not even the young high school student who was coming for the first time, walked through the door who wasn't greeted by at least three or four others.

As the service proceeded we sang several old chestnuts:  "Blessed Assurance,"  "I Am Thine O Lord" among them.  We used the denominational hymnal, Chalice, a very fine hymnal.  There was a sound system--but no overhead projections.

I realized as the service went on that a third of the congregation, there were twenty-five of us on Sunday, was involved in leading the service.  The only two children in attendance lit the candles, others read, served communion, said prayers at the altar, led singing . . . . it was very participatory!

There wasn't a lot of glitz or glamor.  But at prayer time, folks were invited to share their joys and concerns, and they did.  We offered up prayers for a couple just passing through town with an "anonymous concern" as well as for long time members who were ill.

As the service ended and folks started to leave--well, they didn't.  Everybody stood around the sanctuary chatting with each other.  The young man with a bandanna and beard who sits in the balcony by himself every Sunday.  The young college student from the nearby liberal arts college.  The elderly widows and grandparents.  Everybody seemed to know everybody else.  And clearly they enjoyed being with one another.  They were almost loath to go!

I think it was church guru Lyle Schallert who once labeled a congregation the size of Mom's a family church.  And that is so apt.  Like any family, they have their squabbles, I'm sure.  But like a good family, they stick by one another.  Coming to church for worship on Sunday is like a reunion.  A family reunion.

All the years my Dad was disabled the women's Bible study--they call themselves the Friends of Jesus Bible Study--met at my mom's, to make it a bit easier for her to participate.  When Dad died, they just continued to meet at Mom's--that is until another of the group's members had to care for her home bound husband.  Then they moved to her house.  That's the sort of thing family's do, isn't it.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Parenting the Second Time Around

My grandsons are here for the week.  Along with their two dogs.  They are attending a day camp here on the island (the boys, not the dogs) alongside kids who live here on Sanibel year round, and other grandkids like themselves.  Their evenings are spent with us. We have them for a couple of weeks each summer, as we do two of their cousins.  Its our way of helping to pick up some of the slack in childcare.  It also means some extra time with the kids themselves.

Ours is a relatively easy lot when it comes to grandparenting.  I know people who are virtually raising a grandchild or two.  And across the nation, their are thousands of grandparents doing just that.  Thousands of grandparents who have sole responsibility for their grandkids.  Sometimes it is because both parents have died--but more often it is because the father is missing from the scene, and the mother is caught up in drugs, or is imprisoned, or in some other way unable to parent her own children.

I often say that being a grandfather is not only the best job in the world, it is also one of the easiest.  I don't usually say that this time of year (the part about being easy)--but I really do say it with some frequency.  When I was a boy and we'd play make believe I always wanted to be the grandfather.  Even then I knew that it was a great gig. 

But in the summer, when the grandkids are here by themselves, and we're packing lunches and making sure showers are taken and breaking up squabbles, I remember that for some grandparents its a year round 24/7 job.  And I offer up a prayer of thanks.  Thanks for my own children, who have all grown up to be capable parents.  Thanks for their very able partners and spouses who are as well.  And thanks for those grandparents out there who step up to the plate when needed and become surrogate moms and dads.  God grant them the strength and wisdom they may need as they do parenting the second time around!

(Photo:  Me and my oldest grandson on our bicycling adventure last summer.)

Monday, July 21, 2014

Small Steps and Giant Leaps

Normally our young charges would have already been in bed--for that matter so would most of us.  But that night every camper and staff member at Camp Lincoln in southern New Hampshire was gathered in the dining room around a tiny black and white television.  For along with 500 million folks around the world, we wanted to witness Neil Armstrong's first step on the moon.

That was forty-five years ago now.  I was only fifteen at the time, a junior counselor, helping to ride herd on a group of eight boys who were assigned to our cabin.  It had some woodsy name, as I remember, Beaver's Dam or Pine Branch.  I've long since forgotten!  The next day I would celebrate my sixteenth birthday.  That summer Armstrong took his small step for man, while I took a small step towards growing up.

It wasn't the best of summers.  I was really a rather obnoxious young fellow.  I really thought I knew it all.  After all, I was the older brother of three siblings.  I knew how to take care of little kids.  My senior counselor, however, disagreed.  We often argued.  I learned the meaning of insubordination that summer.  I really was a bit of a jerk!  Needless to say, I wasn't invited back the next year.  But that's another story.

The picture on our black and white television was very fuzzy.  Partly because the reception in the woods, in those pre-cable days, was lousy.  Partly because it was fuzzy anyway!  But we were still thrilled.  I remember going outside and looking up at the sky and marveling that Armstrong and Aldrin were actually on the moon!  Amazing!  It still sends chills up my spine!  We had met Kennedy's challenge.  We had won the race to the moon!

I don't remember now how long we watched once Armstrong had actually set foot in the Sea of Tranquility--but I suspect the camp director sent us all off to our cabins fairly quickly.  After all there were boats to sail, and arrows to shoot and baseball games to be played in the morning.  And even though there were men on the moon, that wouldn't delay the rising of the sun and the playing of reveille!  Nor would it stop the fact that I would be another year older.  And by the end of the summer, rather chastened, and perhaps a bit wiser.  Not because of the moon landing, but rather because of the lessons I'd learned, the hard way, about working as a team and sharing responsibility.  In the end, it may have been more than just a small step in my growing up--that summer may have actually been a giant leap!

(Photo:  Danner Family, circa 1969.  Front, l to r, Mark, Sue.  Back, l to r, John, Howard, Robert, Constance)

Monday, July 14, 2014

Sitting in a Pew--or a Padded Chair, Actually

Yesterday I had the rare opportunity to attend a worship service for which I had no responsibility.  I had the morning off and one of our sons had asked us to check out a church near their home that they are considering attending.  They've been there a couple of times and wanted my take on it.  We weren't church shopping per se.  More window shopping.  We certainly weren't going  to "buy" anything ourselves, but we wanted to take a peek!

To begin with, I knew that the church was non-denominational, and what would be characterized as "evangelical."  Like so many first-time visitors I had gone to their website before I went to service.  It was a very polished website--and, if you were willing to dig, one that conveyed a fair amount of information about the church, including it's statement of faith.  If I had not been on my particular mission, that would have stopped me right there.  It was theologically very, very conservative. 
It spoke of biblical inerrancy and substitutionary atonement, though it used much more accessible language.

That said, the website gave very clear directions, and had a very inviting look about it.  As did the parking lot when we pulled in on Sunday morning.  Balloons marked two clear signs pointing to the children's wing of the church--and a number of parking spots were reserved for parents with very young children.  Clearly they were aiming for the younger crowd.  And it appeared to be working!

When we entered the foyer, the doors were held open for us by cheerful greeters.  We were welcomed at least three times.  Everything was clearly marked--I noticed the worship space was labeled "auditorium"--not "sanctuary."  A tip of the hat to those unfamiliar with churchy language.

The music was loud.  Very loud.  It was a so-called contemporary service, and it began with a rock band and light show.  The song lyrics were projected onto three large screens--though it seemed that it was mostly the band members who were singing. And it was loud.  Very loud.  I love good rock and roll.  And I can handle volume being turned way up--but it was loud.

We stood for the first twenty minutes as the band played on.  The auditorium was full of young families.  Very few older folks--and virtually none from my mother's generation.  She would not have been able to stand for so long, I suspect.  They say one of the secrets to church growth is to have a very closely targeted audience.  They did.  And clearly it was working.

The sermon was piped in from another location.  It was well-done and shown on a very large screen which had been lowered for the presentation.  It was well-thought out, with a fair amount of humor--and reflective of the church's theology.  But I missed having the preacher in the room.

I was struck by how little we had to do as worshippers.  The room was fairly dark--more like being in a theater than in a traditional sanctuary--and it was very easy to close in on yourself and your own concerns.  The sermon was targeted that way as well.  I may have missed something, but I don't think there was a single mention of any outside event.  No mention of Israel and Gaza, no mention of flooding across the country, no mention of gun violence erupting again.  A very well crafted cocoon had been prepared for us--granted one with very loud music--and we could simply sink into the experience and let our troubles go.

Are there things for old fogeys like me to learn from such an experience?  Sure.  The use of technology was awesome--and if we are going to connect with younger folks we need to use it more expertly.  The welcome was genuinely warm--always a plus.  Laughter is good.  And at least for some of our worship experiences we need to recognize musical tastes vary widely.

But that said, worship--for me at least--needs to be more inclusive of the worshippers.  Worship needs to reflect our commitment to serve others.   I'm a trained actor--I love a good show--and bringing a measure of theatricality to worship is not a bad thing--in fact, I would suggest it is a good thing.  But worship needs to be more than a show. 

And finally, the church is one of the last places where one can have an intergenerational experience.  I for one think that is one of the real gifts we offer to the world.  I would hate for us to become stratified by age.

I'm glad I had the opportunity to go.  And I appreciate that while the church I visited is coming from a very different space than I am, it clearly is meeting some needs for folks trying to understand their place in the world and their relationship to God.

But did I tell you the music was loud? 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Sending Mom to Washington

What would drive a parent to such depths of despair that he or she would not only allow, but encourage his or her child to travel alone hundreds miles across unknown terrain?  What manner of fears would prompt such an action?  They are called unaccompanied minors, these children who are crossing into the United States illegally.  But I think that's a less than helpful term.  Unaccompanied minors are children who travel on planes, watched over by flight attendants and delivered safely into the hands of a waiting adult.  And while some of these children may be watched over by smugglers--coyotes--the only hands they are delivered into are those of border patrol officers.  These journeys  north aren't  summer vacation trips to Grandma's.  They are, at least in the eyes of parents from places like Honduras and Guatemala, trips designed to save young lives.

So I ask again, how can a parent be so desperate?  Yet many, many are.  The violence and poverty in so many villages and towns in Central America has proven so deadly that even a trip through the deserts of Mexico, worth all the risks of robbery, rape and even murder, is a safer bet.

Do we need to address the immigration issue?  Of course.  Can we have a porous border and survive as a nation?  Probably not.  But meeting these children with protests and angry cries is not the way to solve the problem! 

I imagine that many of the youngsters traveling north have to grow up very quickly along the way.  We can only hope that our governmental leaders would grow up as well. The bickering, the tit-for-tat approach we are witnessing in Washington is as childish as it gets!

When we were little and had a squabble, my mother would sit us down and make us apologize to each other and then we'd have to work out our differences.  Maybe we should send Mom to Washington.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Religion and Politics and the Matter of Interpretation

This past week the Supreme Court has been handing down many of its decisions for this term.  Their decisions have reflected a variety of questions and issues that face our nation.  But at core, many of them have addressed the question of freedom.  What does it mean to say ours is a nation dedicated to such things as freedom of speech and  freedom of religion? 

From the earliest days of our country we have tried to define our terms.  The Constitution often leaves things open to interpretation.  And so we debate.  Political parties and personal philosophies are often built around such interpretations and understandings--often times conflicting understandings.  Conflicting interpretations.

And things change.  What may have seemed acceptable at one time is deemed unacceptable at another.  What may not be permitted in one generation may be permitted in the next.

It is far from original to speak of the Constitution as a living document.  But that makes such a statement no less true!  And while we argue and debate, we do have a final arbiter in the highest court in the land.

Perhaps for those of us who are Protestants that is the problem with the Bible.  While many of us believe it is also a living document, open to interpretation, we are less willing to speak of a final arbiter when it comes to such interpretation.  In my denomination we say that each individual, guided by the Holy Spirit, is responsible for determining how to understand and apply the scriptures.  And that, of course, leads to many understandings and many applications.  Don't misunderstand.  I wouldn't have it any other way!  But it does make for a challenging life!  

They say you should never talk about politics or religion in polite company.  But I say, how can you not?  After all, what does the 4th of July mean if it doesn't mean you can talk about both?  But, of course, that's my interpretation!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Summertime--and the Reading is Easy

So what are you reading this summer?  I have a huge stack that I'm working through--some are strictly for pleasure--others are work related.

On the pleasure pile you'll find John Grisham's latest, Sycamore Row, a legal thriller if you will which tackles important issues like racism.  You'll also discover Tom Perrota's The Abstinence Teacher, one of his older novels.  I loved his book The Leftovers and decided to look for some of his earlier works.  I also have Christopher Paolini's Inheritance, the fourth and final installment in his fantasy series called The Inheritance Cycle.  (I still can't believe he was only fifteen when he wrote the first of these Tolkeinesque works!)

My "Presidential Project" continues as well.  I'm up to number nineteen in my effort to read a biography of every present.  Rutherford B. Hayes.  On tap is Garfield.  I'm still trying to do one a month, but that doesn't usually pan out--this one is 600 pages long!  (Who would have thought there could be that much to say about Hayes?)

For work I'm tackling a variety of books related to courses I'll be teaching next season.  I just finished a volume on the Gospel of John by Robert Kayser.  All the years I've been leading Bible studies, I've never taken on John.  I'm co-teaching a course on antebellum attitudes towards race as reflected in literature and religion, and so I'm tackling Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and a new biography of Stowe by Nancy Koester.  And for the course I'll teach next spring on the religious history of Florida, Michael Gannon's The Cross in the Sand.  (I LOVE the title!)

When I was a boy I would sneak out into the hall after I was supposed to be in bed, and read by the hall light until I heard my parents start up the stairs to go to bed themselves.  And my summer days were filled with reading--I used to love the hammock on my great aunt and uncle's porch, where I would swing and read for hours!  I guess old habits die hard!  Summer and reading--perfect together!

But enough about me--what are you reading this summer?

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Of Saggy Pants and Dress Codes

I have never been a clothes horse.  I have a few nice suits that I wear on Sunday--and four or five really nifty "Florida" shirts, you know the ones with palm trees and fish and wild colors.  But for the most part my attire is unremarkable.  Indeed my first consideration when I'm buying a new shirt or slacks or whatever is comfort.  I, for one, don't believe clothes make the man--in fact, as one pundit once put it, I believe that the man makes the clothes.

All that said, one of my very first forays into the world of politics came when I was just a sophomore in high school and the school board decided we needed a dress code.  It was the sixties, and skirts were getting shorter with each passing day, and jeans were quickly becoming the item of choice and some of the board members felt it was getting out of hand.  How could we concentrate on our studies?  How could we develop discipline in our work habits if we had no discipline in our clothes closets?

The time came for the board to vote on the matter, but before each meeting there was a time for public comment, and so I, along with some of my classmates, decided to go and share our views.  To their credit the board allowed us to speak, and we let them know in no uncertain terms that we thought the dress code was a lousy idea.  We would learn our lessons whether we were clad in denim or khaki or the finest wool.  And being a future preacher (though I resisted the call for almost a decade after that meeting) I used an analogy.  "We may be like diamonds in the rough, but we are nonetheless diamonds!"  My fellow protesters applauded.  So did a few parents.  But we lost.  The dress code was instituted, but to the best of my knowledge, there was no bump up in grades.  There certainly wasn't for me!

I recalled all this when I learned this week that the Fort Myers City Council, just over the causeway from Sanibel, is discussing a ban on saggy pants.  You know, those trousers some fellows wear six inches below their waists?  Underwear showing, material all gathered up around the ankles?  Maybe if kids weren't allowed to wear such clothing it would build character, so the argument is going.  Maybe it would even help reduce crime!  (I'm not making this up!) 

I'm sorry.  I didn't get it back when I was a kid.  I don't get it today!  I don't like saggy pants--no more than my elders liked our choices of clothing in the sixties. I really don't.  But really--it will help reduce crime?  It will build character?  How about working on poverty?  How about creating job opportunities for teenagers (yes, I know, don't wear saggy pants to an interview!)  How about making sure our police officers and sheriff's deputies are well-paid and better equipped to do their work! 

As a child of the sixties, all I can say is let them wear what they want!  "Up with saggy pants!"  So to speak.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Remembering Howard Danner, Remembering Dad

I grew up in northern New England.  We lived about a mile away from school. Too close to take the bus--so we walked  On nice days, on rainy days, on snowy days, we walked.  Sometimes we'd complain about it.  And inevitably my father would shake his head, and tell us how he used to walk five miles each way, even in the snow!  It wasn't until I was twelve or so that I put it all together:  my dad grew up in West Palm Beach.  Florida! 

It's funny how often I think of that story.

It's funny how often I think of my dad.  We were often at odds over the years.  He tended to be much more traditional in many of his understandings of the faith.  I can remember more than one heated discussion about the use of inclusive language and the respective roles of men and women in life.  In earlier days we'd argued about little things, like the length of my hair (yes, Virginia, I had hair!) or the timing of my curfew. 

Still, for all our disagreements, we also had a real respect for one another.  And a deep, deep love.  I remember when I went away to college waking up one night in October realizing I really missed him!  These days that happens every time I see his picture or someone mentions him in conversation.  Because for all our differences one of the things I could always count on was the fact that no matter what I had to say, no matter how long it took me to explain it, Dad would listen.  Really listen.  And he'd be genuinely interested.  And then, if I asked, he'd offer me sound advice.

He loved me.  He was willing to listen.  And he was interested in what I had to say, in who I was and what I did.  As we approach Father's Day I realize yet again how really fortunate I was to have him.  I only pray that my children will be able to say the same.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Reflecting on Thirty-four Years

Yesterday, June 1, was the 34th anniversary of my ordination to Christian ministry.  I remember the day well.  The service happened in central Maine.  My parishioners had decked out the sanctuary in lilacs.  It was gorgeous.  I had a very eclectic group of folks who participated in the day.  The preacher for the afternoon was the president of my seminary, Wayne Glick.  My father gave one of the charges.  My Masters thesis was a history of the Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake, and three of my Shaker friends were there for the service--Brother Ted Johnson read a scripture passage.  There were members of the two churches I was serving at the time.  Ted, my dad, and even my seminary are all gone now.  But my dear old friend Charlie Nichols (who I met in third grade) played the organ--and he's still around to keep me honest! 

As a budding church historian, I had built the liturgy around the theme of saints.  We even sang two of my favorite hymns, "I Sing a Song of the Saints of God," and "For All the Saints."

When I got ordained I didn't envision myself having a career in parish ministry.  I was headed for Boston University, to work on a PhD in American Church History.  When I was debating in which discipline I should do my doctoral work (I was considering New Testament Studies and Church History) Wayne Glick had asked me how much I enjoyed language study.  "Not much," I told him--having struggled already with French, Latin, Greek and Hebrew.  "Well," he said, "The you should do American Church History--you'll only need to do German on top of what you've already done!"  So the decision was made!  And I was planning on a teaching career.

But it didn't work out that way.  I had a part-time position as a Minister of Christian Education while I was doing my course work at BU--and then when my residency requirements were completed, I decided I needed to work in a parish full-time while I wrote my dissertation.  And so I sought and received my first call to a full-time pastorate.

The rest--as they say--is history.  I did finish the dissertation (and managed to pass my German exam on the third try!)  But I found parish work to my liking.  And now, thirty-four years later, here I am.  Serving my fourth full-time pastorate.

God willing, I am a ways off from the day when, as the hymn says, when I am counted among those "from whom their labors rest"--but I continue to live and work among the living saints.  And for that I am most grateful.   

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Exclusive Claims in a Pluralistic World

We had just finished the first session of our series on Islam and Christianity for about fifty students and staff members at a school in upstate New York.  My co-presenter, an imam and personal friend of mine, had eloquently described the Islamic understanding of revelation, Muhammad and the Qu'ran, and I had discussed the Christian view of Jesus and scriptures as they relate to revealed truth.  I felt that we had given a pretty even-handed presentation, carefully respecting each other's tradition, while at the same time, presenting the basic truths we saw inerrant in our own.

As the audience began to leave the auditorium two or three people came forward to thank us for our program.  Finally I was left standing with one woman who identified herself as a Christian.  It soon became very clear that my description of the basic tenets of Christianity were at variance with hers.

"Why," she asked, "why did you say that most Christians have believed that Jesus is the only way?  That is what being a Christian means:  salvation comes through Christ alone." 

We talked for a while, but it was quite obvious that neither of us was swayed by the other.  She was unwilling to agree that it might be possible for a non-Christian to truly know God, and I was unwilling to consign all non-Christians to eternal damnation.  One thing I had to concede, however, was that in the Bible there is often a very strong emphasis on just such exclusivistic claims.

Of course, Christians are not exclusive in their exclusivity.  Such claims are made in many faith traditions.  Often emanating from foundational texts and teachings.  I for one preach a very inclusive gospel--and believe in a God who loves and accepts all people.  And if that makes me a heretic, so be it.  But even my inclusivity is challenged by those who make exclusive claims.  How do I make room for them in my understandings?  I am convinced it is the theological challenge of our time.

Monday, May 19, 2014

A Few Words about Preaching

Later today I am headed to Minneapolis for the Festival of Homiletics.  Over the course of the next four days I'll have the chance to hear some of the finest preachers and teachers of preachers in the country.  No doubt my mind will be challenged and my heart deeply stirred.  It is always a very well-organized and stimulating conference.

A lot of my time as a pastor is devoted to homiletics, to the art of preaching.  Most week's I devote many hours to preparing my sermon.  Rarely does it last more than twenty minutes or go longer than three pages.  It is a relatively speaking short presentation, based on one of the scripture texts assigned for the day.  Yesterday, for instance, I worked with the text from I Peter that speaks of the rejected building block becoming a the head of the cornerstone.  It's one of my favorite passages in the Bible, and it gave me an opportunity to talk about one of our former foster children, who is graduating from high school next month.  Formerly rejected, he has indeed been repurposed. 

People tell me all the time that the most important thing for them in a sermon is being able to relate to what is being said.  What do these ancient words mean for me--why should I care what somebody wrote millennia ago?  It would be easier, I guess, if I were a fundamentalist.  I could simply say, "Well, these words are God's words--don't you think we should pay attention to what God has to say?" 

But I'm not a fundamentalist.  I have an extremely nuanced understanding of the scripture.  I believe the Bible to be the Word of God, but not the words of God.  I believe that what is reflected in its pages is how a certain group of folks experienced the holy in their midst (or many times, what they perceived to be the absence of the holy!)  So any attempt to make the scriptures come alive for a contemporary listener necessarily includes exploring the original context. 

Frankly, I love the challenge.  And I love being a preacher.  Since moving to the South, where we pastors are often called "preacher" I've found myself using the term self-referentially much more frequently.  But I'm rambling.  So let me bring this to a close--and unlike some peers, when I say that, I mean it. 

Monday, May 12, 2014

Crocodiles, Christians and Church

OK--first a few statistics.  One of the fastest growing segments of the population is made up of those who claim no religious affiliation--and it is generational.  Among those considered part of the Silent Generation, ages 69-86, only 9% of Americans are religiously unaffiliated.  That number grows with each successive generation until it peaks with the Millennials, those adults aged 18-33.  Among this youngest group almost one-third of them 29%, are religiously unaffiliated.  (Source: The Christian Century, 4-16-14, 9)  For those of us who lead religious institutions this is very unsettling.  Granted, participation in religious institutions waxes and wanes--it has throughout our history as a nation.  But this seems especially challenging. 

I serve a congregation which is predominantly made up of senior citizens.  Sanibel, at least in terms of its resident population--year round or seasonal--is a primarily a retirement community, so it makes sense.  We do have some very active young families in the congregation who are here very much by choice.  They like our openness and our inclusive approach to faith and life.  Still, they are a distinct minority!  We just finished a new church pictorial directory.  It looks great!  But grey is the dominant hair color!

We've made a very conscious decision to reach out to the young people here on the island.  We've opened a weekday preschool that emphasizes art, music and academic preparation and which reflects our inclusive approach.  We've launched new mid-week programs for elementary and middle school aged kids.  We have puppets as part of our Sunday morning worship (which are loved by young and old--just ask anyone who Chompers is and they can probably tell you with a smile!)  We are beginning to incorporate different musical styles into worship, including an annual Blue Grass Sunday.  But for all our efforts, which have met with a measure of success, we are not adding younger new members.  Participants, yes.  Attendees at worship, yes.  But not members.  Not those who are intentionally religiously affiliated.

I'm not sure what this means for the future--but I am increasingly convinced that the old Protestant model built on the idea of formal membership may be passing us by.  Maybe it's time to reexamine the idea of parish.  Granted, without an established church, without an official church of the state, the parish concept loses some of its punch.  Yet, still, I am beginning to think of Sanibel as a parish, a geographically defined arena for the work and ministry of the church.  How  can we best serve our neighbors?  How can we best welcome them to participate in our life and work?  These are questions that may not be answered in my lifetime.  But they are questions this pastor must ponder on Periwinkle Way.

(Photo Credit:  "Chompers the Crocodile" courtesy Bruce Findley)

Monday, May 5, 2014

Nigeria, My Mother and a Word about Education

Back in the early fifties a young woman from Vermont felt called to attend seminary.  So she packed up her bags and headed for Bangor, Maine.  It turned out she was one of only two women enrolled in the school, and so she had to bunk in a room next to the dining hall kitchen, where the cook could keep watch over her and the other female student.

The woman from Vermont met an older student--a dashing young blond fellow from Florida.  They fell in love, and in time they got married.  She got pregnant, and so after finishing her second year, she dropped out and had . . . me.  She would have made a great minister, but things took a different direction.

Her love of learning, however, never died.  She read voraciously--and when her four children were older, she went back to school.  High school.  Not for a diploma, she had that already.  But rather to learn Latin!  Fast forward a few years, and a move to Nebraska, and she finally finds her way back to the task of working on a degree.  She blows through her BA with a 4.0.  Goes on to get a Masters, and then a PhD.  All while maintaining that 4.0. 

While working on her doctorate, she becomes a full-time lecturer at the University of Nebraska, and one of the course she taught every semester was English as a Second Language.  She had students from all over the world--the Middle East, Africa, South America, Asia.  No doubt she probably had some women from Nigeria who wanted to learn English and better their lives.

When she gets her hood, she moves to Kentucky, and teaches at a small liberal arts college for over a decade.  She changes the lives of any number of students with her gentle, yet firm approach.  Including some women who, like she had been, were back in school after years of motherhood and work.  She even advised the Non-Traditional Students Club on campus.

My mother, Dr. Constance Jane Sherwood Danner, was no less a mother or wife because she was educated.  Well-educated.  Indeed, I can't imagine her without her education.  Nor can I imagine the lives of all her students had she not been instrumental in helping them discover the joys of literature and composition.

The group that has kidnapped the 273 young women who were finishing up their exams in Nigeria is called Boko Haram.  In the local tongue the name means "Western education is a sin."  Some of the girls were Christians, some were Muslims.  All of them wanted a chance to enrich their lives and many of them, I'm sure, the lives of the husbands and children they would have in the future.  How can that be a sin?  If it is, my own mother is chief among the sinners.  And while we can talk about the theological implications of that statement, like many sons, I am quite convinced she is not so much a sinner as a saint.  And, I suspect, so do those who were fortunate to learn at her feet.

It is time we stand up for not only the kidnapped girls in Nigeria, but for all women and girls who want an education.  What better way to celebrate Mother's Day?

(Photo:  John & Connie Danner      Credit:  Doreen Birdsell)

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Ball's In Our Court--What Are We Going to Do?

I get so tired of people saying we have solved the race issue in America.  We haven't.  We really, truly haven't.  And this past week we've seen to very high profile examples of the reality that racism simmers just beneath the surface of our national life. 

No doubt you've heard about Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who first came to public attention because of his struggle with federal authorities over unpaid grazing fees.  In an interview with the New York Times, he went off-topic, if you will, and started talking about a public housing project in North Las Vegas.  He commented on the African-American residents.  "I've often wondered are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy?"  (

Would they be better off as slaves?  Would they be better off living in fear of torture and rape?  Would they be better off never knowing from day-to-day if they would be allowed to stay with their partners and children?  Would they be better off being sold like cattle at an auction?  You're kidding me, right?  He can't really mean what he said--can he?  But, apparently, he does.  He has not offered a retraction.  But we've solved the racism issue in America.

I know, you're saying that's just one misguided rancher in Nevada.  But what about Donald Sterling--owner of the LA Clippers basketball team, who allegedly got in a verbal argument with his girlfriend over posting a picture of herself with Magic Johnson on Instagram.  "It bothers me that you want to broadcast you're associating with black people," he reputedly says.  And later, "Don't come to my games.  Don't bring black people, and don't come."  (  Yes sir, we've solved the problem!  There's no real racism in America!

I imagine there will be a fair amount of sputtering about both of these situations for a week or two.  Maybe the National Basketball Association will take punitive action if the allegations against Sterling prove true.  Bundy has already alienated those who were supporting him in the grazing fees fight.  But then we'll probably just sweep it all under the rug and go on as usual.  Content to let the problem simmer without really addressing it.  But we can't let it go--we only fool ourselves when we do!  Rather we need to promote a national dialogue.  We need to get the issues out on the table and be honest with ourselves about the horrors of the past (slavery was just that, a horror) and recognize the long lasting impact it has had on American life.  And then we need to repent.  As a nation.

In Greek the word for repent, metanoia, means to turn around and go in a new direction.  That's exactly what we need to do. But first we need to acknowledge where we've been.

The ball's in our court--now what are we going to do?